Mzuzu Christmas 2017

25 December 2017

[Above photo: Our greeting committee as we entered Nyika Plateau—a herd of mountain zebra. ]

We are sitting in Mzuzu Coffee Den with new friends, Steven and Renee, with whom we are staying in Mzuzu. She is a GHSP Mental Health Certified Nurse Specialist teaching at the St. John of God mental health nursing program. Steven is along as support and for fun. Both are previous PC volunteers and both have done considerable international work. They are 20 years my junior and I love their company, as does Linda. We’re already dreaming of joint adventures—the Serengeti, Ngoro-Ngoro Crater, Zanzibar and possibly Mulanje, if PC ever allows us to go up again—and enjoying each other. We’re at the Coffee Den for the electricity and the wi-fi. I dare not drink coffee after my last go two days ago with incredible heartburn. Not for a bit, at least.

We are on a two week holiday, leaving Blantyre three days ago and driving up the incredibly dangerous M-1 to the outskirts of Lilongwe, skirting the terrible city traffic there via side roads, and driving over a 12km dirt track into the Vipya Forest Reserve. We camped at Luwawa Forestry Lodge, plunk in the middle. There is, again, wonderful birdlife, but since I forgot my birding book I am not trying to identify new species so assiduously. The Lodge is a lovely throw-back to an earlier time and there is a dam with a lake, an archery range, kayaks, all manner of whimsical sculptures, endless hiking trails, and a three story treehouse. There even is a huge, friendly (to us—one of the Malawian staff says he has bitten a number of them) mutt named “Bob” whose tail actually is bobbed. He looks like a large, tan Rottweiler and parks himself outside our tent each night, all night. Since there are jackals and hyenas here, it is rather comforting. Our Cape Union tent is a dream—dry, roomy, well vented—albeit at 6 pounds more than I want to backpack. It is wonderful just to be having fun and not thinking about teaching or worrying about patients. Well, I do both but without an imperative, or the ability, to do much about either.

I’ve applied to present about the Pediatric Mental Health Clinic and the Blantyre Child Study Group at a conference on Non-Communicable Diseases at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda at the end of February. While it isn’t strictly research, I can describe trying to develop Child and Adolescent Psychiatry services here. They are lacking, excepting in S. Africa, throughout sub-Saharan Africa (sSA), so I may get in. If so, Linda will join me and we’ll try to visit the mountain gorillas in Ruanda after the conference. And we want to go to Madagascar and Mozambique on other trips, in addition to our lengthy journey next summer overland to Namibia. Lots of planning.  I am amazed at how much life I’ve managed to tuck into the time since I was discovered to have lung cancer.

We’ll leave here tomorrow morning to head up to Nyika Plateau, to see its beauty and game. We’ll camp there and day-hike. Then north to stay overnight at a coffee plantation—but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We were invited to have supper with Brother Michael (Linda knew him.) and several other St. John of God Brothers last night at their chapter house. First, we had prayers in their tiny chapel, which was decorated with paintings and carvings of pomegranates. “Pomme”—apple—and “granate” from Grenada in Spain where St. John cared for the mentally ill. The Order is in 53 countries, with many hospitals and various charitable good works. Last night we learned a bit about pastoral training, which takes years, requires the students to be fluent in French and English and to learn a new indigenous language every 4 years when they are transferred. Some have trained as nurses, some as social counselors, and one is completing his psychiatry residency in South Africa in another year. There is a lot of rigor to their studies, as well as renunciation. Yet we found them to be fun, funny, engaging, and seemingly having made rational choices to live their lives purposefully to help the less fortunate.

I am a non-believer but cannot help but be touched by the Brothers. And by the singing of the incredible choir at the 7AM Mass at St. Thomas this morning, with drums accompanying. I watch Linda and respect what this means to her even though it is largely foreign to me. I do love the values of giving, educating, trying to relieve suffering, working hard, and helping others to improve their lot. The breadth of Good Works of the Church in Africa is staggering—schools, hospitals, centers of hope and solace, etc. None of the churches we’ve been to are extravagant or gold-filled.

Father Richard, a French-Canadian priest who baptized Linda’s first-born in Karonga 37 years ago, leads a parish here, his 49th year serving in Africa. Linda’s photo of him at the baptism shows a handsome young man with thick hair and a determined demeanor. He still is lively, bright, and engaging at 70, but the years have worn him. He looks pretty tired at times. To be fair, this and Easter are his busiest. We sat in a thatched gazebo and had a soda with him yesterday. A truly lovely guy. If only we humans weren’t so human, with our greed and perversities, inflexibilities and dogma, which have so damaged the image of the Church.

It’s amazing to me that a Semite from the Middle East served as the spark for such an incredible moral movement, especially given our Dear Leader’s penchant for wooing Christian voters and apparent fear/hatred of Middle Easterners (writ large).  DT certainly never pledged consistency.

At this time of year I think a lot about my children, how I miss contact with each, and think about the ways in which I wish I’d been different as a father—as a person, really. It isn’t to beat myself up anymore, just to see what I can learn and not repeat in future relationships. I hope I’ll have a chance to enjoy their company soon.

News Flash: A second Christmas mass this evening lasted 3 hours and was a spectacle rivalling Aida and the horses and camels at the Baths of Caracalla. It was in Chichewa, but mostly in singing, drumming, and dancing. And I don’t mean “Bringng in the Sheep” hymns, as Linda puts it. Amazing harmonies, drumming, and who knows what the lyrics were but the place was rockin’! There even was a baptism, with the infant and parents sitting out the remainder of the service in front of the congregation in a kind of creche. At one point the father stood up and joined in the dancing. It was a joyous celebration, complete with incense. The afterparty, with the Sisters sitting on one side of the rectory common room, the Brothers on the other, and with soda and potato chips in the middle, was not as engaging or joyous, and was reminiscent of the intense awkwardness of 7th grade mixers.  As we were leaving I mentioned to Father Richard that he would find it dull to do mass in the US or Canada. “Ugh”, he said. “No life”. And indeed, after nearly 50 years serving in Africa, he knows how to throw a celebration that really engages Africans (and us mzungus, as well).

[Hm. The power went out just before I was going to post this, so I got a refund on my internet fee!]

A Merry Christmas to all!

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